Fighting Racism with Visualization

How do you confront something pervasive yet ignored or invisible till experienced?

W.E.B. Du Bois is best known for his civil rights work and scholarship, but his pioneering data visualizations around race inequity are drawing more attention as visualization becomes a profession. His visualizations for the 1900 Exposition in Paris are stunningly artistic, minimalist, and irrefutable. Europeans’ ideas about race weren’t much different from Americans’ at the time, despite a sense of moral superiority at never having had slavery. Du Bois’ charts challenge assumptions that African Americans were inherently less intellectual, hard-working, interested in higher education, etc. He charts household wealth, illiteracy, demographics, and more.

Household wealth


These graphs are forerunners of vivid animations like these by the New York Time’s Upshot showing that black boys grow up to be poorer than white children, no matter how wealthy their families.

Projects like Lynching in America (and others covered here) use maps and charts as powerful tools that reveal racism’s extent. “Voyages,” an open database about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, lets users explore data and pose their own questions about the raw reality of the 10-12 million forcibly exported to the U.S. It harkens back to Du Bois’ map showing the diaspora. He used the power of visualization to bring the unseen into the public eye. If you can see it, you can begin to fix it.

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